Ford's father, Parker Carrol Ford, was a traveling salesman for the Faultless Starch Co., driving through small towns of the Deep South, with regular excursions to more cosmopolitan places like New Orleans.
Before Ford's birth, his mother traveled with her husband, conducting laundry seminars to help sell the product to housewives in rural areas. She also shared the rough-hewn pleasures of the road, staying in the then unconditioned hotels and enjoying French Quarter attractions. During those years, they basically lived in the elder Ford's company car.
Ford was born to them after they'd been married for 15 years. After Ford's birth, his mother, Edna, stayed at home with him from Mondays through Fridays while his father was traveling.
Both natives of rural Arkansas, his parents eventually settled in Jackson, Miss., roughly the midpoint of the Dad's multi-state territory. Ford recalls a helper-skelter childhood, enlightened by his parents' enduring and passionate love for each other. As elaborated on in an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Ford perceived that their relationship was the most important part of their lives, although he always felt their deep love for him, with all of its flaws. (The photo at left above comes from USA Today's web site.)
His father showed little concern for books, music, art and education. He did enjoy Southern food and drinking in roadhouses, and traveling through states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. During the week when his father was gone, his mother took the child to movies, and assumed most of the responsibility for his haphazard schooling, She showed little of the reflection associated with writers.
Ford tells Gross about his rough teen years when he engaged in lawlessness such as breaking into homes. He says he gave that up on his mother's request when his father died when Ford was 16. Modern psychologists might point to the frequent absence of his father, although Ford says that didn't damage him.
A clue to Ford's training as a novelist: He spent a lot of time growing up living in his grandmother's and step-grandfather's 600-room hotel in Little Rock, Ark. The hotel was where legislators and other dignitaries stayed, and where people came for illicit assignations.
Working as a bellhop, waiter and front-office clerk, Ford observed human behavior at its most basic level. His step-grandfahter also summoned the young man to accompany him when a dead body was found in a room.
"Between Them's" style is denser and more rhetorical than the narrative voice of Ford's novels, especially in comparison with the lightness and satirical tone of Frank Bascombe. I was reminded of the obsessive style of Philip Roth in his autobiographical novels about growing up in Newark.
Ford's memorable descriptions of Southern rural culture and the racy life of raucous towns like Little Rock raised a mental soundtrack of Hank Williams songs like "Honky Tonkin." Along with his novels set in New Jersey, New York and the Northwest, Ford has also written intensively about the South. What joins these works in a sense of place, as essential to the memoir as to his novels and short stories.
I was interested when Ford, an only child, told Gross in the Fresh Air interview that he chose with his wife not to have children. In the Bascombe books and the novel "Canada," Ford examines the emotional depths of parenthood and family. His imagination discovers essential truths that other writers seek from experience. "Between Us" shows that his unusual childhood was the foundation of his fiction.
Ford's intense memories of his parents and other family members glow with hypnotic, poetic language. His humor shines through when he describes his father and mother's search for a house in Jackson's suburbs, and how his father in seeking to buy a luxurious personal automobile kept driving test models lent by car dealers. When he talks about the development of Jackson's post-war suburbs, I heard an echo of Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter turned real estate agent.
At age 74, Ford said he found himself missing his father and mother and wanted to reconnect with them. The book contains separate pieces on his father, recently written, and his mother, first composed in 1986 after her death from cancer. Reading the relatively short memoir, I wondered if Ford will write new novels; his last Bascombe book, "Let Me Be Frank With You,"read like a farewell. I would welcome new memoirs about how Ford began and cultivated his writing life.
Like Roth, now retired, Ford has built a career of continuing range and excellence. His books have defined the American mind dealing with monumental cultural and social changes from the 1960s through the present. "Between Them" unflinchingly illuminates the inauspicious origins of a major American writer.